Monday, September 26, 2016

Free Software and Tools for Crime Analysts

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity.

When I started this How To series in January, one of the things I wanted to do with it was to cover basic topics and skills for crime analysts. My reasoning is that there are plenty of smaller agencies that would benefit from analyzing crime, yet often these agencies don't have the resources to hire an experienced crime analyst or provide them with expensive software tools.

In this week's post I'm going to look at some tools that your agency can get free. Even though I am fortunate that my agency provides some really great tools for me to use, I find myself using a number of these free tools because they are handy and fill a need.

Google Earth
When people think of crime analysis and mapping, they often think about Geographic Information Systems or GIS. I have and use GIS. It's a very powerful tool. However, for quite a lot of crime analysis mapping needs it's often a bit of overkill. Many times, you may want to take a quick look at the relationship between a couple of crime locations or measure a distance. To use GIS to perform one of these simple tasks is akin to swatting flies with an elephant gun.

However, these simple tasks are easily accomplished with Google Earth. In fact, there is quite a lot Google Earth can do, such as displaying placemarks to identify a crime location, to drawing and displaying polygons for things like patrol areas to measuring distances for determining if drug or weapon law enhancements around schools apply.

One feature I use quite often is to export a Google Earth map as a JPEG image so I can then pull it into a PowerPoint slide for crime briefings. Zoom you map to where you want it. Placemark the locations with a relevant label or two, then go to the File Menu and Select "Save Image" and you have a quick map image for a bulletin, presentation, etc.

Another free tool I use daily is the text editor Notepad++. Text editors aren't word processing applications like Microsoft Word. They don't have features such as different fonts, tables or the things that make a document pretty. Text editors are designed to do one thing well, that is, edit text. For this reason they are used extensively by people who write computer code for programming applications.
Have you ever tried to cut and paste text from Word into a data entry screen on an application? Do you notice that sometimes the pasted text includes strange characters or it ends up with line breaks in weird places? This is because word processors like Word using invisible formatting characters to delineate changes in fonts, line or paragraph breaks, etc.

Text editors won't do that to your text. Pure, unadulterated text with no funny characters. Since text editors are designed to make programmer's lives easier they include features such as extensive macro support, programming language syntax highlighting etc.

One feature I really love is a very powerful search and replace feature that can make changing/replacing words or characters in a large body of text very easy. Another nearly as useful is a tool to change the case of text. Is your text all caps and you need it all lower case? Notepad++ can fix it. It can even covert case into proper sentence case, etc.

I use Notepad++ for things like cutting and pasting "boilerplate" text (standard replies or responses) into other applications such as emails, social media posts or database queries. Since all that is getting pasted is text without any formatting characters you won't have to worry about stray formatting characters ending up where they don't need to be.

I have previously written about the need to develop a strategy to deal with the large number of passwords a crime analyst will use. In that piece I spoke about one of my favorite tools for managing passwords KeePass.

KeePass is a password manager that will securely generate, store and manage passwords such as are used for various computer systems, websites and services. I have several hundred different logins and passwords to keep up with for systems I use daily to systems I only use every now and then. KeePass allows me to keep these in an securely encrypted file. All I have to remember is the one password to unlock the application and not the hundreds of individual passwords contained inside.

Microsoft Office is a great product. I use it quite often. However, it can be quite expensive to deploy across an organization. One alternative is the free office suite LibreOffice. This project started as a project by several computer software companies to provide an alternative office suite with word processing, spreadsheet, presentation software, database and drawing application to bundle with their operating system software. These companies provide professional developers and support to the project and released the software for free for anyone who wishes to download and use it.

LibreOffice maintains compatibility with most Microsoft Office documents and can read and write to those formats. It is also a very polished and professional application. For an agency that may be looking for a cheaper alternative to Office, it's a good choice. It also works on multiple operating systems such as Windows, Mac OSX and Linux.

There are other free applications that can be used for crime analysis. What are your favorites?

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